Dedicated to classics and hits.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Everything You Need (1999) by A.L. Kennedy

Book Review
Everything You Need (1999)
by A.L. Kennedy

  A.L. Kennedy (female) is another writer from the explosion of Scottish literature, or at least, the international audience for Scottish literature.   It seems to me that Scotland was a close-in beneficiary of the movement to embrace "post-colonial" literature.  It also benefited from being the culture nearest to English/American audiences: foreign, but not too foreign.  For the writers who eschewed titles in Scottish dialect, the difference can seem negligible.

  Everything You Need is largely set on Foal Island, a bleak location with a dark history, but located off the coast of Wales, not Scotland.   Nathan Staples has taken up semi-permanent residence at a writers fellowship, where he muses on his failures and generally mucks about.  Staples is what you call a "commercially successful" writer- descriptions of his work  make him sound vaguely Stephen Kingish, or to find a more Scottish example, Iain Banks.   His life is thrown into disorder when the daughter who was taken from him, and in fact does not know of his existence.

 It's all very sharply observed, and holds a particular appeal for anyone with pretensions of being a "writer."  On the other hand, it's 500 plus pages of a tirelessly self involved writer locked largely inside his head.  There is some startling incident to liven up the melancholy plot, and the character of his long-time publisher introduces an element of darkness deeper than the darkness implicit in the idea of a commercially successful writer mentoring the daughter who doesn't know he is her father, but everything stays largely predictable. 

The Romantics: A Novel (1999) by Pankaj Mishra

Image result for allahabad colonial architecture name
Allahabad, in Uttar Pradesh in India- the most populous Indian state.

Book Review
The Romantics: A Novel (1999)
by Pankaj Mishra

   As far as canon eligibility/inclusion goes for first-time novelists, it is OK to write a book that everyone has read before, as long as you write it from a novel perspective.   The bildungsroman (coming of age story) and multi-perspective realist novel have been re-written since the early 19th century and each generation brings new perspectives:  that of middle and lower economic voices, German voices, Russian voices, European voices, then Latin American voices, African voices, female voices, LGBTQ voices, Asian voices.  In the late 1990's, voices from South Asia began to proliferate.  Pankaj Mishra is part of that 1990's wave of South Asian voices.

  Mishra's voice is that the post-independence dispossessed Brahmin, rich in cultural heritage and tradition, but suddenly economically dispossessed by post-independence economic dispossession.  At least that is the perspective of his narrator in The Romantics, which is  as traditionally a bildungsroman as any book written in the past 300 years.   Unlike writers like Rushdie and Naipaul, Mishra is not a part of the South Asian diaspora of the mid to late 20th century.  His European characters, of which there are many in The Romantics, are the foreigners.

  Samar, the narrator/protagonist, arrives in Allahabad, locaton of the local university for the Indian province (State? Department?) of Uttar Pradesh.  Uttar Pradesh is in the interior Hindu heartland of India, and an important location for the British colonial enterprise.   Samar goes to Allahbad to study at the famous colonial era university, now in a serious state of decline.   Because of the strong cross-over between Hindu culture and British presence, Allahabad also draws a share of Western seekers, and this is the group that Samar engages.

  The time period, and the portrayal of University life in India in the 1970's and 80's (and the 90's?) dovetails with the depiction in A Fine Balance by Rohinton Misty.  A Fine Balance and The Romantics complement each other, with thematic overlaps but enough serious difference to make both books worthwhile.


Thursday, January 11, 2018

Intimacy (1998) by Hanif Kureshi

Book Review
Intimacy (1998)
by Hanif Kureshi

   Kureshi writes about a middle aged writer (of television and film scripts) who decides to leave his wife and two children,  He spends their last night together brooding over the decision, examining his motives.  Intimacy is not a novel about divorce, rather it is a novella about the act of walking out on a wife and children.   Certainly, the vagaries of straight men and their issues with the loss of excitement and adventure in the context of "marriage and children;" is a well trodden path in contemporary literary fiction. I would also think that, within the audience for literary fiction the number of audience members who have personally experienced something similar to the experience of the narrator/leaver in Intimacy is close to 100%. 

   Kureshi was born in England to Pakistani parents, and this experience makes him an English writer of British fiction or a British writer of English fiction- take your pick.  There is nothing particularly South Asian about Intimacy's narrator except his background and physical description. He's more easily described as an international member of the "creative professional" caste that congregates in places like Los Angeles, New York and London (the setting of Intimacy).

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Home Fires (2017) by Kamila Shamsie

Book Review
Home Fires (2017)
 by Kamila Shamsie

   If I have a regret about this project, it's that my living circumstances over the past half decade haven't allowed me to BUY many of the books I've read.  If being an audience member is an aesthetic act, the primary action available to the conscious reader is to BUY the books involved.  Instead, I've checked out over 90% of them from the library.   During that time I've sold a house in San Diego, rented a condo, occupied an apartment in Los Angeles with my boo, moved with her to a house in another part of Los Angeles, moved out of the condo in San Diego and now, finally, purchased a home in Los Angeles (Atwater village, come and say hi!)  I've been careful not to accumulate possessions this entire time- basically since 2013 or so.  Thus, while I've been reading plenty, I haven't been supporting the authors.  That's less important for the older titles, but now that I am firmly in the world of contemporary fiction, I believe that participating as an aesthetic audience member requires BUYING not checking out, the books involved.

   Home Fires is the recent novel by Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie.  It was longlisted for the Booker Prize last year, and I selected it because the perspective of a FEMALE author from South Asia is one that I am interested in exploring.  Home Fires is Shamsie's take on Antigone, the ancient Greek play by Sophocles.  In Antigone, a teenage girl is forced to choose between obeying the laws of her Kingdom and her religion when her brother betrays his King and is ordered to be left unburied, a grave violation of Greek religious law.

  This scenario is transported to the present day, where a pair of adult sisters is forced to deal with the choice of the twin of the younger brother to become a jihadi, serving in the Islamic state media division.   The older sister, Isma, leaves London for Cambridge to pursue her PHD in sociology. While there she meets Eamonn, the only son of a Pakistani-English politician with a reputation for calling out his own people. Eamonn forms a connection with Isma, but he returns to England and promptly falls for Aneeka, the younger sister of Isma and twin of jihadi Pervaiz.  Shamsie switches between perspectives, including Eamonn's politician father in the mix.

  As tension builds, the reader is thrust into the perspective of English citizens of Pakistani decent, who feel crushed between the pressures of English disapproval,  Muslim comraderie and their own desires and ambitions. 

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

Timbuktu (1999) by Paul Auster

Book Review
Timbuktu (1999)
 by Paul Auster

  Timbuktu is the book Paul Auster wrote from the POV of a dog,  Mr. Bones, the faithful companion of a colorful hobo who calls himself Willy G. Christmas, despite being the child of Jewish holocaust survivors.  Like every Auster novel except 4 3 2 1, Timbuktu is read and done in a blink- under 150 pages, I believe.   Timbuktu is one of the first books I've read with a major homeless character portrayed in a complex and sympathetic way.  Christmas is no stereotypical hobo.  During the course of Timbuktu it is revealed that he was once a promising Columbia University undergraduate, a roommate, in fact, of a writer named Paul Auster.  Experimentation with drugs leads to a psychotic break and a life time of wandering, interspersed with winters spent at the home of his long-suffering mother.

   It is hard to imagine this as a canonical title- any canon- since Auster is so prolific and already well represented due to his combination of Americanness, commercial viability and critical success.   No surprise that Timbuktu was dropped from the 2008 revision of 1001 Books.

Fear and Trembling (1999) Amélie Nothomb

Book Review
Fear and Trembling (1999)
Amélie Nothomb

   Amélie Nothomb is a top selling writer of literary fiction in France, with a spotty record of English translation- about half her novels have made the jump.  Fear and Trembling was her big break out hit, winning, a yearly literary prize in France.  It tells the story of  a young woman with the same name as the author who works for a year in a gigantic Japanese corporation.  Her time there is a particular kind of "Office Space/The Office" hell.  Japanese office culture is vaguely transmitted to the West every few years when some poor sucker actually dies at the office from over work, but Nothomb's novel really lays it all out in excruciating detail.

  At times, one could question whether Fear and Trembling is actually a work of fiction, since the author apparently had the same experience, and she provides a kind of afterward which includes the narrator writing the book and receiving a card in the mail from one of her primary office tormentors.



Sunday, January 07, 2018

The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) by Salman Rushdie

Book Review
The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999)
by Salman Rushdie

  If you were looking for some kind of universal myth,  the tale that is known in the west as Orpheus and his attempts to rescue his wife, Eurydice, from the underworld.  Talking about the role of Orpheus in Western civilization is the same as talking about Western civilization itself.  Everyone knows the myth of Orpheus, and two thousand years of scholars have woven it even deeper into the fabric of narrative culture.

  But, as it turns out, the myth of Orpheus is not necessarily Greek (i.e. Western) in origin. I've written about the origins of the Orpheus myth before in this space.  In June of 2013, I identified the Orpheus myth as a "potent source of material" and mentioned that Orpheus was, "the first rock star." (Vanished Empires, June 10th, 2013.)  I also discussed the Orpheus myth in my review of the movie Spring Breakers, in April of 2013. (Vanished Empires, April 3d, 2013.)  In my review of Spring Breakers, I visited the topic of the pre-Greek roots of the Orpheus myth, specifically the Babylonian myth of Tammuz and Inanna.  The story of Inanna dates back to Sumerian and Akkadian tablets, making it one of the oldest document human myths of all time.

  What is amazing about Rushdie is that the fatwa experience basically made him the biggest "serious" literary celebrity in the Western world.  He was not hesitant to embrace the role, even appearing as himself on an entire Curb Your Enthusiasm episode largely ABOUT the fatwa that led to his fame in wider culture.   The experience turned Rushdie into one of those writers who has a "concern" with modern celebrity culture and "that world."  You'd have to talk about American authors like Brett Easton Ellis or Jay Mcinerney (or Kurt Andersen).  The difference between Rushdie and "serious" American authors who have some take on celebrity culture is that Rushdie has a firm international reputation, and his interaction with America has almost entirely been as a moderately sized popular celebrity.  This perspective is quite central to his most recent book, Golden House, about "the bubble" as experienced by a nuclear family of Indian immigrants in post-Trump NYC.

  In The Ground Beneath Her Feet, the Orpheus/Eurydice pair are a John Lennon type musician and his female counterpart, who has a kind of Madonna type vibe.  In typically involved detail, they rise out of relatively well-off Indian obscurity to become the biggest rock stars in the world.  Rushdie introduces several other characters from prior novels, and makes what appears to be a massive revelation, that The Ground Beneath Her Feet, and presumably his other books, exist in an alternate universe, very similar to our own, with minor divergences like, the British join American in Vietnam, John F. Kennedy escapes assassination in Dallas but is assassinated a decade later with Bobby Kennedy by Sirhan Sirhan. 

     I sense that the reaction to this revelation by the literary was kind of a collective eye roll, but he integrates this idea into the book in a such a multi-faceted manner that I'm inclined to think that critics didn't really "get" what was going on.  Or maybe they did and they were just sick of Rushdie's shit, or take his brilliance for granted.  Certainly, Rushdie can't be accused of hiding the ball- the patriarch of the family which produces the Indian John Lennon character is obsessed with Indo-European mythology, with a tasteful twenty year break to give the Nazi's their moment.

  Rushdie ties this quest for a comparative universal type mythology with the Orpheus motive by having his character postulate the existence of a "fourth" role in society, alongside the priest, farmer and soldier, the outsider.  The outsider is the excluded, who often revitalizes culture by observing from outside the community.   

   Orpheus, the musician who travels to hell and back, is a prototype for this outsider.  Maybe that is all obvious, and I'm being obvious point it out, but I think that his treatment of this mythic element is very deep and overwhelms the less endearing parts of the narrative- Rushdie, celebrity or not, has a clumsy take on the United States that seems entirely based on New York.  His depiction of locales outside of New York are mediocre compared to the way he invokes locations in London or India.   His fascination with celebrity culture, while understandable, does not show him at his best.

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